NRA, Wayne LaPierre head for New York graft trial after his resignation

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NEW YORK (Reuters) – The corruption trial of the National Rifle Association and its longtime leader Wayne LaPierre is likely to begin on Monday in a Manhattan courtroom, just three days after LaPierre’s sudden resignation as the gun rights group’s chief executive.

New York Attorney General Letitia James sued the NRA and LaPierre in August 2020, saying the group diverted millions of dollars to fund luxuries for top officials, including travel expenses for LaPierre to several resorts.

James also accused NRA officials of failing to obtain board approval for conflicts of interest and insider transactions, obtaining no-show contracts for associates, and retaliating against whistleblowers who suspected financial wrongdoing.

The attorney general said the misconduct violated state laws governing nonprofits, which she enforces.

Founded in 1871, the NRA has denied wrongdoing and said it has made reforms. It has also accused James of targeting it for political purposes, and violating the First Amendment for trying to silence its speech.

Jury selection, which LaPierre has attended, began on Jan. 2 and may conclude on Monday, with opening statements also possible that day.

The trial comes at a difficult time for the NRA, which has seen revenue slide 44% since 2016, and membership drop by nearly one-third since 2018.

It cited health reasons for 74-year-old LaPierre’s resignation. Longtime communications chief Andrew Arulanandam was named interim chief executive.

Since taking over in 1991, LaPierre built the NRA into a political powerhouse that pressed Washington and statehouses to expand gun rights, even as mass shootings mounted nationwide.

Its efforts have been bolstered since 2008 by three major U.S. Supreme Court decisions that expanded gun rights.

LAPIERRE EXPECTED TO TESTIFY

LaPierre is among three individual defendants remaining in James’ case, and is expected to testify. The others are secretary and general counsel John Frazer, and former finance chief Wilson Phillips.

A fourth, former NRA second-in-command Joshua Powell, settled late on Friday, agreeing to reimburse $100,000 and admitting he improperly used NRA assets to benefit himself and his family.

Powell was fired by the NRA in 2020. He later accused the group of corruption and greed, and expressed support for some gun control measures.

Former NRA President Oliver North, who left the group in a 2019 leadership dispute, is also due to testify.

The trial before Justice Joel Cohen of the state supreme court is expected to last six weeks.

Jurors will assess whether the individual defendants engaged in financial misconduct, and how much they should repay the NRA.

Payments could be reduced if jurors were to blame the NRA for allowing any misconduct.

The jury will also recommend whether Frazer should be ousted, with the judge to decide later on removal. LaPierre’s job security had also been in play before he resigned.

In late December, a state appeals court let the case go to trial. It said James’ probe appeared to uncover “ample evidence of malfeasance,” while the NRA had resisted a leadership overhaul that might have tackled some problems.

James had previously sought to close the NRA, but Cohen rejected that effort in March 2022.

(Reporting by Jonathan Stempel in New York; Editing by Noeleen Walder and Rosalba O’Brien)

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